At this festive time of year with Christmas hard upon us and with office parties helping those visions of sugarplums dance in our heads, this is a good time to discuss two of entrepreneur K. Gordon Murray's Holiday film greats. One is the perennial seasonal favorite, SANTA CLAUS (imported by Murray and released in 1960), and the other is that timeless classic, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964).
SANTA CLAUS lives high above us on a cloud where, using a telescope and a listening device made up of an oscillating fan and a disembodied ear, he keeps his sites on the children below. Aiding in this is Merlin the Magician and a large group of children from around the World. When his surveillance system made up of two big red lips tells him that Pitch is trying to ruin Christmas, Santa, unable to leave the North Pole until Christmas Eve, watches helplessly from above. Down below, a poor child named Lupita longs for a dolly for Christmas. However, her unemployed parents are so poor they can't even afford furniture! Pitch tells Lupita to steal a dolly and she almost does.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Billy, the neglected son of wealthy socialite parents, longs for their loving presence. However, they prefer to drink at a local establishment rather than spend time with their sad and lonely son on Christmas Eve. Three local boys plan to break into Billy's home and steal his presents. They also hatch a plan to kidnap Santa and force him to hand over the presents intended for children Worldwide! Finally, it's Christmas Eve and Santa can leave his outer-space cloud and venture forth to the aid of these children, armed with a magical flower and some sleeping powder given to him by Merlin. Will Santa dispel Pitch and his evil plans to stop Christmas from coming!?! Will Lupita get her dolly? Will Billy's parents learn the evils of their ways? Will the three bad boys foil Santa's intended yearly trip to Mexico City!?!
From it's opening scene of Santa rocking it on his pipe organ as little children (angels?) sing along to Lupita's hallucinogenic dreams of over-sized taunting dolls to Billy's sleeping parents being delivered back to him in coffin-like boxes, this is without a doubt one of the strangest and most disturbing children's Holiday movies ever made! In one scene deleted for American import, it shows a long line of hooded and chained lost souls being lead into Hell, their voices filling the air with sorrowful wails. As of October 2011, it was voted by IMDB users as #54 on its bottom 100 worst movies list. No box office is available probably because it never had a general theatrical release. Instead, K. Gordon Murray booked the film for children's matinees where it would be shown once or twice before moving on to the next theater. It was featured on December 24, 1993 during the fifth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as experiment # 521.
Unlike the above film, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is not one of K. Gordon Murray's imports. In fact, there is nothing to suggest he had anything to do with this movie. However, like SANTA CLAUS, it does take place in space. The people of Mars, namely Momar and Kimar, are worried because their children Girmar (played by 8-year old Pia Zadora) and Bomar are watching too much Earth TV featuring Santa Claus. Consulting an old Martian sage named Chochem, he tells Momar and Kimar that the children are becoming distracted and depressed because they have no Santa on Mars. Therefore, Kimar sends Voldar, Stobo and Shim to Earth to kidnap Santa. Upon arrival on Earth, they can't decide which one is the real Santa, and which are the store Santas so they kidnap two Earth children, Billy and Betty, to help find the real one. However, once the Martians have the real Santa, Voldar takes a dislike to him and tries to kill him. Once on Mars Santa, along with Billy and Betty, begins to build toys. Another Martian named Dropo takes a shine to Santa and tries to emulate him by dressing up as Santa. However, Voldar reprograms the toy-building machine and it begins to make unworkable toys. In addition to that, Voldar kidnaps Dropo (who's disguised as Santa) and takes him to a cave. However, when Voldar goes back to the toy factory and sees the real Santa, he realizes the gig is up and is arrested along with Stobo and Shim. Dropo is named Mars' first Santa and the real Santa, Billy and Betty are returned to Earth.
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS certainly has better production values than SANTA CLAUS. In addition, because it was American made at an abandoned aircraft hanger on Long Island, New York, it didn't have to be dubbed. Moreover, it's not as dark and disturbing as SANTA CLAUS. True that SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is listed among the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in the Golden Raspberry Awards book The Official Razzie Movie Guide and is one of the films included in Harry Medved's book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Mystery Science Theater 3000 used it as experiment #321 during the third season (see S. J. Martiene's excellent review of that experiment in this month's Crypt!) and again in the MST3K spin-off Cinematic Titanic in November 2008. It has been rumored since 2000 that it will be remade with David Zucker producing and with Jim Carrey attached to play Dropo but that is believed to be languishing in development hell.
So which, in my opinion, should be chosen as The Worst Christmas Movie Ever Made and why? SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS! And why? In one word, Dropo! The sight of that giggling, mincing, little man-boy rolling around on the floor makes me mad! Mean mad! Had not actor Bill McCutcheon, who played Dropo, died is 2002 I'd hunt him down and punch him in the throat! *A-hem*
Now, let's have a brief look at the man behind the silliness that is SANTA CLAUS, K. Gordon Murray was born Kenneth "Kagey" Gordon Murray in 1922 in Bloomington, IL. A carny at heart, the smooth-talking K. Gordon used his circus connections to hire the midgets for the 1939 MGM movie THE WIZARD OF OZ. After marrying his lifelong sweetheart, the couple tried their hand in Hollywood but it was ultimately in Miami that K. Gordon made his most important movie connection in showman Kroger Babb!
Together, they imported a little known Mexican movie titled SANTA CLAUS that, once dubbed into English, made so much money it was the only film in U.S. history to be released profitably for three decades! And with it, K. Gordon became "King of the Kiddie Matinee" importing and releasing such films as LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND THE MONSTERS (1962), SANTA CLAUS AND HIS HELPERS (1964), THE MAGIC LAND OF MOTHER GOOSE (1965) and SANTA'S MAGIC KINGDOM (1966). But, there was also a more adult side of K. Gordon. While he would continue importing children's movies, he also tried his hand successfully at more adult fare such as SWAMP OF THE LOST MONSTERS (1965), WRESTLING WOMEN Vs. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1965), as writer of the surprisingly nasty exploitation movie SHANTY TRAMP (1967) and THE WITCH'S MIRROR (1960/ 1969).
In total, K. Gordon would release 60 movies during a 15-year period. But, troubles began with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) who confiscated his prints. Before he could make it to Court to reclaim his prints, K. Gordon Murray died of a heart attack on December 30, 1979. He was 57—ironically, this was at the same age and on the same date that Murray's father died.
By the time of his death however, the days of the "Kiddie Matinee" were almost over. The big studios and major exhibitors came up with a contractual clause stating if an exhibitor won a bid on a picture, they had to play it on weeknights and weekends. This move killed the Kiddie Matinee in one swoop. However, Murray's fairy tales will live on in the hearts and minds of anyone who's seen them.
Merry Christmas...if that's OK!